Small Businesses Can Get Smarter With Analytics

One of my favorite sources of information for small business technology is SMB Group.  Laurie McCabe’s recent post about business intelligence and small business was right on point.  As compared to large enterprises, small and medium sized businesses have greater challenges when it comes to pulling business insight out of data that is in their disparate and unconnected applications.   In addition, according to the SMB Group study, many small business owners feel like business intelligence solutions are too complex and too expensive.  Unfortunately, missing on the insights and opportunities analytics can provide may end up more expensive in the long run.

I especially like the part in her post where Laurie McCabe lists “symptoms” of data analysis problems.  How many of these does your company suffer from?

About a year ago I wrote a post about some cloud-based analytics tools for small businesses.  I still think these tools are viable alternatives but for many small businesses they are still too expensive – small businesses look at them and fall back on the tried and true Excel spreadsheet.  Recently I’ve run across some less expensive tools that have connectors to applications that small businesses use like Highrise, Batchbook, Freshbooks, etc.  These include Easy-Insight and EazyBI.  Both can pull data from some cloud applications (though both could use more connectors in my opinion), from in house databases like MS Access or SQLServer, or from Excel spreadsheets.  Once the data is in one place it is much easier to see a complete picture of your business.  In addition, these tools can fill in important gaps in these applications.

Is it magic?  No, you have to understand data and how it connects to get truly good insights.  Some folks have a knack for this and do it every day in Excel – these tools just make it easier.  Others may need outside help.  Either way, these tools bear watching.  I would expect more tools to enter this market as well, making now the time for small businesses to take their data seriously.

 

The Learning Analytics Cycle by dougclow, on Flickr
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Supporting a Growing Professional Services Firm

Hi all and happy New Year!

 

Happy New Year 2012! by Creativity103, on Flickr
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I read a good article today about things fast-growing professional services firms need to keep in mind as the expand.  The bottom line is that it is easy to move beyond paper, pencil and Excel into a world of processes and procedures that aren’t scalable and that will eventually hinder a firm’s growth.  The author’s did a great job listing the various functions that bog down earliest:

  • resource utilization
  • invoicing
  • project estimation and delivery
  • maintaining a resource database
  • sales and marketing
  • reporting and analytics
They go on to make some high level recommendations like to look at Software as a Service (SaaS, also referred to as cloud) offerings but don’t settle for point solutions that aren’t easily integrated.  Their final recommendation is to look at an integrated enterprise solution.  Here is where I part ways with the authors a bit.  My advice is to:
  • look at all of these areas holistically and put together a technology plan that allows for growth in all these areas.
  • look at point solutions that “play nice” with other solutions and have easy integration.  Compare that to the risks and benefits of an enterprise solution.
Depending on the service area most firms have a variety of choices, from specialized applications for certain sorts of firms to broad based applications that are easily customizable for a variety of needs.  Bottom line, get help from someone knowledgeable about what is available and make a plan.  You’ll be glad you thought it through.


Security, Access and Support, Oh My!

Ok, you have found a cloud-based application that promises to add value to your business.  The next thing to investigate is whether the support model meets your needs.  What are the questions, beyond the business functionality, that you should be asking of the vendor – and yourself?

 

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  • What will the vendor do if there is disruption of service?  What do you need to do?
  • How can you access your data if you want to integrate it with another application or migrate it altogether?
  • Who has access to the data, both internal to the vendor and externally?
  • When and how is the data backed up?  How and when can I request a restore?  What does it cost?
  • What is the vendors monthly percentage of downtime?  What is your recourse if they have more than that?
  • How does the vendor communicate maintenance and other outage information  to customers?  When is maintenance usually done?
  • What happens if the vendor goes out of business?  How can I get my data and what would it take to switch to another vendor?  Can I switch?
  • How can I get support if I have a question or a problem?  Can I call someone or do I have to use email or chat?  Does more personalized support cost more?

First, ask the vendors these questions.  Ask follow up questions if you don’t understand.  Then ask yourself – can my business live with that?


More on Making Technology Changes

In my last post I talked about what to consider when moving to the cloud – and by the time I finished my first sentence or two I realized that the things you need to consider when deploying cloud applications are much the same as when you make any large technology change in your business.  I also realized I had more to say about this topic than would comfortably fit in one post (or even two!) so let’s chat some more about making large application, architecture or platform decisions, shall we?  Today let’s focus on some more factors that can make a large implementation harder or easier.

 

Are you adding new functionality?

You may find that adding new capabilities with a new system is somewhat easier than upgrading or replacing functionality that already exists.  Let’s say, for example, if you have a service business like an HVAC company and you decide to implement click to chat functionality on your website for the first time.  You don’t have replace something that already exists and retrain your staff.  You will still have to train them and create new processes but is often easier than changing old habits.  You will likely add interfaces to your other systems but that is almost always easier than mucking around with existing interfaces.  Contrast this click to chat example with swapping out your accounting system.  My head just hurts thinking about all the spaghetti that likely has to be unraveled!

 

How many other systems does it need to interface with?

If the technology you are adding is standalone then woo hoo!  It sure is nice not to have make sure systems talk to each other.  Oh, wait, this is the real world and I can’t think of anything that is truly standalone.  Let’s use our click to chat example – you’ll certainly have to integrate with your website.  You’ll likely want to interface to your CRM too – at the least the person chatting is a new contact.  They may also be a sales prospect or be trying to open a service ticket.

The more integration points a system has, the harder it likely is to implement.

 

Is it strategically important?

Are you adding technology that is going to be a game-changer for your business?  Then it will be harder because you absolutely, positively have to get it right.  The system has to work correctly, it has to integrate seamlessly with the rest of your business, and your staff (and possibly your customers) have to understand the implications of the new system and how to use it.  Our click to chat example is one that, while it will add customer service benefits, is likely not to be strategically important.

 

What are your regulatory constraints?

Is your industry free of regulatory constraints?  Or are you implementing a system that falls outside of these constraints?  Accountants, lawyers and medical professionals have constraints around client records and files.  When they are implementing systems that affect those records or files they have to tread carefully to make sure they remain in compliance.  In these cases technology change is harder.  If however, these same professionals are implementing an online appointment system, they are likely to have an easier time since this is outside the regulated areas.

So why is it so important to know what is easier or harder?  I’m not trying to talk you out of making technology changes – far from it.  Small businesses have a lot to gain by leveraging technology to their advantage.  It is critical to realize, however, what you are getting into and to make sure you plan for enough resources – mostly time and money – to do the job right.


Head in the Clouds? Is your Business Ready?

Everyone is talking about cloud computing – heck I’ve written a good bit about it myself.  How do you know if your small business is ready?

First off, I’d argue that making any large technology change requires readiness – not just moving to the cloud.  So keep the following in mind when you consider any major infrastructure or application change.

 

Small business technology in the cloud
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What Business Need Does it Fill?

What are you trying to accomplish by making a change?  Save money?  Open up new revenue opportunities?  Allow your staff or customers new functionality?  Improve processes and inefficiencies?  Any of these could be good drivers for making a technology change but be sure you know which it is and that you can clearly articulate why you want to make the change.  First of all, you want to make sure you aren’t chasing the latest bright, shiny object.  Second, any change will something your company will have to work through – it is never magic – so you want to make sure you can clearly articulate the business benefits.  Finally, going through the cost/benefit exercise, even if informally, will help you determine whether the benefits are worth the costs, both in hard dollars and in internal change costs.

 

Does it Support Business Processes?

Does the new toy support existing business processes?  How ingrained and mature are these processes?  On one hand if they are mature processes, it is easy to define those processes and map them to what will need to be done in the new environment.  On the other hand, if they are mature processes and don’t map well to the new functionality, your level of complexity in the change management arena just went up – a lot.  The same goes if you have no existing business processes or if they are ill-defined or ill-understood.  Things just got harder.

Here are some examples:  Let’s say you want to bring in a CRM tool.  Do you have a sales process?  A support process?  Are you going to try to teach your staff a new tool AND a new process?   Or is your current process inefficient and the tool will help streamline it?

 

Do Your Employees (and You!)  Have the Skill Sets They Will Need?

How tech savvy are you guys anyway?  I’ve found that many of the new applications are fairly easy to learn if a) you understand the underlying business process and b) you are reasonable comfortable with most common business tools (Word, Excel, email, etc.).  If even these basic tools are difficult to use then once again your level of difficulty score has gone up.  You’ll have to add time and effort to training and support.  Do you have an IT staff?  If so, are THEY comfortable with the new architectures and environments?  How much training and support will they need as well?

 

Don’t go into any big technology change without thinking about these three factors.  It is worth getting help from a professional to do a simple readiness assessment so you know the true cost of the change you are contemplating.


Using Technology to Innovate your Business

There is an interesting article in Accounting Today – Will You Innovate or Evaporate?.    The gist of the article is that services firms (particularly referring to accounting firms, of course, but I think this applies more broadly) ought to lift their heads from their practices from time to time to see what is out there – what different tools or techniques from other industries could be applied to a practice to make it better.  I am sure the author was thinking more broadly but here I’ll address how this applies to technology.

The point the author makes in this article is that you can innovate by making small changes and weaving them into the firm’s culture and DNA.  This makes absolute sense when talking about adding technology changes – why take on a huge implementation, upgrade or overhaul when a small change might make a big difference?  Or if you are making a big change, just make one, take your time, and make it right.  Take the time and, yes, spend the money, to make sure the implementation and roll out is smooth.

What are some examples of small changes?  You can start emailing invoices.  You can start scanning and filing documents online.

What are some larger innovations that, when done carefully, might have a big payoff?  You move from a local file server to cloud based storage (with the proper security level of course) so that your staff can access data from anywhere and from (almost) any device?   You could give your clients access to their files and information (including billing information) online.  Maybe they could even actually pay their bills and make appointments online.

What technology innovations has your business made lately?

innovation - 3 by nyoin, on Flickr
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How Much Will a Mistake Cost?

What if…

  • You have an IT services firm and, despite having a backup and recover plan, you have a major outage and a large number of your customers lose their websites?  Do you say “oh well, we recovered what we could” or do you say “we will make it right and rebuild those sites for you”?  How much would that cost?
  • You own a restaurant and your connectivity to your credit card processor goes down and you have no backup method for taking cards.  Do you revert to “cash only”?  How much would that lost business cost?
  • You are a professional photographer and you drop and break the external hard drive that houses all your photos for the past 5 years – including the ones from last nights wedding photo shoot?  What is the cost of this loss?
  • You are a lawyer whose files are now ruined by the fire that broke out in the office next door and quickly spread through the building?  What is the cost of recovering (if you can) copies of what was in those files?
  • You own a consulting firm and the day before your monthly billing run you lose the computer that had the billing records for the whole month.  How long before you can bill your clients correctly?
In some of these cases the data or files can be recovered by a specialist – and can be costly and time consuming.  In other cases you can try to find alternate versions of your data or files – which can take a long time.  Or you just may be out of luck.
Failure to plan for redundancy, failure to back up and failure to TEST the redundancy and back up – how much might that cost?  Can your small business afford it?

 

dollar sign by adria.richards, on Flickr
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If You Go to the Cloud, Does Your Business Need IT Folks?

I read an interesting article on CMSWire today called In the Cloud, the Role of IT Changes.  The opening argument was that now most companies, large and small, outsource things like wiring, copier support, phone support and the other “crawl on the floor to connect wires” type of IT work.  Now that they are also starting to move applications away from their premise and to the cloud, what role is there for IT in a small or medium sized organization.

I agree with the conclusion that IT will not go away.   The activities that IT folks do will change from installing, supporting and monitoring applications in house to choosing and managing vendors and external applications and making sure any integration work.  IT resources will be aligned more tightly with the business and focus on how the business uses the software and how the software might be configured to be most efficient.

In fact, as technology becomes more strategic for companies, the IT roles becomes more strategic and less “cost of doing business”.  How can your business best leverage emerging technologies?  What is your level of risk in various circumstances and how can you mitigate that risk?  Are you signed up for the appropriate level of service for your company?  Have you negotiated the best possible deal?

The points in the article are all good but how does this apply to small business?  I think it leads to a number of questions that each business owner has to address:

  • do I have the time and knowledge to make technology decisions?
  • do I have the time and knowledge to choose, negotiate with and manage any number of vendors?
  • do I have the time and knowledge to integrate the solutions my business needs?
If the answer to any of these is no then you do need IT help.  It doesn’t, however, have to be full time staff.  You can easily find experienced, business-savvy consultants and technology advisers that are available on a fractional basis, just like you can find part-time help for bookkeeping and accounting or legal needs.

 

Who is helping your company with technology today?

 

Ben’s Big Gig by philcampbell, on Flickr
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What I Use For My Small Business – Mailchimp

I haven’t posted about the tools I use for my small business in a while, which is a shame because I use Mailchimp every month.  It is also a shame because Mailchimp is a local Atlanta company and I am all about supporting local businesses.

 

What is MailChimp?

So what is Mailchimp?  It is a super easy to use email publishing platform.  Most companies use it for email newsletters but you can use it to email anything from regular old letters to invitations and  coupons.

 

Easy to use

There 3 main activities to creating a newsletter:  creating your email list, creating the campaign and monitoring the results.

  1. It is a breeze to import your contacts – directly if you use a CRM (customer relationship management system) that integrates with them, thru a CSV file if you don’t.  I use Batchbook so I just share the Mailchimp API with Batchbook and click a button and my contacts are moved over.   You can manage your contacts in Mailchimp but I highly recommend you do that in a CRM.  Hmm, sounds like a topic for another blog post.
  2. Once you have a list created you can create campaigns from their templates or from scratch.  They have a ton of good-looking templates.  If you are familiar with Word or WordPress you’ll find them very simple to use (and pretty hard to break).
  3. The provide great reporting about how many people opened the email, what and where they clicked, etc.  You can even access the reporting on your mobile device.  They provide you with a ton of information you can use to improve the quality of your campaigns.

 

More advanced features

They include a lot of advanced features beyond just sending email.

  • They have integrations with Facebook, Youtube , Twitter and more so you can share your email campaign on almost every social network.
  • They also integrate with events hubs like Facebook and Evenbrite so you can use those tools with Mailchimps great templates.
  • They have a good reputation for avoiding spam.  What this means to you is that a high percentage of their emails get delivered.
  • It is easy to integrate their forms into your website if you like.
  • Finally, you can do fancy stuff like a/b split testing (two versions of an email to see which performs better)

 

Cost

If you have fewer than 2000 subscribers and send fewer than 12000 a month you can use Mailchimp for free.  Only catch is they put a small logo on the bottom of your email.  It is small and unobtrusive so I am ok with that. Here is what it looked like at the bottom of my last newsletter.   If you don’t want the logo or have a bigger subscriber base you can get a paid account.   Monthly plans start at $15 and are based on your number of subscribers.  You can also opt to pay as you go.

 

What is the best part?

I mentioned the CRM integrations earlier but the company has obviously made a conscious effort to be open – they integrate with a multitude of other applications.  They integrate with more than 20 CRM applications, more than 20 CMS (content management system) applications and more than 20 e-commerce applications.  They actually integrate with a lot more partners but I got tired of counting.  What does this mean to you?  It means that when you use Mailchimp for your email marketing you stand a great chance of having that data  (coming in and going out) integrate with something else you are already using or thinking about using.  In today’s world of cloud computing this is no small thing.  I also think it shows the right mindset – do what you do well and play nicely with others who do what they do well.  We could all learn something from that.


4+ More Technology Buzzwords Every Business Owner Should Know

Didn’t get enough buzzwords last week?  Not to worry, I am here to fill the big gaping void in your week!  Here are more buzzwords that every small business owner should know.

 

Lets get started!

  1. Business intelligence – CIO.com defines business intelligence or BI as “… an umbrella term that refers to a variety of software applications used to analyze an organization’s raw data”.  So what does that mean?   Generally it means going beyond straight transactional reporting to using data to  improve decision making, cut costs or identify new business opportunities.  It generally entails merging data from various sources and looking at data over time to identify trends, etc.  You use BI to answer questions like “who is my most profitable customer” or “which is my costliest route”.  I talked about BI in this post.
  2. Cloud computing – there are lots of definitions but mine is this:  any computing resource that you use that isn’t on your desk or in your office.  For example, this blog is physically stored on a server that I think is in New Mexico.  Heck, I am not entirely sure where it is.  Where it is NOT is in Dunwoody, GA – hence it is in the cloud.  If you use Gmail, Evernote, Dropbox or any other software as a service (SaaS – another good buzzword) program you are “in the cloud”.  You can read more about the cloud here and here.
  3. CRM – stands for customer relationship management.   It is a business function, usually supported by technology, designed to improve interactions with customers.   It allows a business to, in one place, keep track of interactions and communications with a customer like inquiries, complaints, phone calls, emails, and transactions.  It can help marketing, sales and customer service stay on the same page when dealing with customers and prospects.   I wrote a few posts about CRM you can read here and here.  If you go beyond traditional CRM that and start to keep track of a customer’s online behaviors thru social media like Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn and the like you are dabbling in Social CRM (see, another free buzzword for the price of one!).  There is a great article that describes social CRM here.
  4. ERP – is the acronym for enterprise resource planning and it refers to an integrated system that manages most of the business functions of an organization.  It can include finance and accounting, HR, supply chain management, project management, CRM and more.  ERP solutions for small businesses include NetSuite, Microsoft Dynamics and a plethora of smaller niche applications.  There are so many choices it can be confusing – Laurie McCabe has a good article on how to choose the right business applications.

What does all this mean?

All of these buzzwords should be in your technology plan – if you aren’t using them now you will want to use them in the near future.  If you aren’t sure how to get started or don’t even have a technology plan, get help.  These are all tools to help your business grow and be effective.  And who doesn’t want that?

 

Alphabet miso. by revbean, on Flickr
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